Skip to main content

The Burden of Profit: A Profile of Jonathan Galassi

Manhattan, inc., September 1990

“The menace of success, the likelihood of failure – things I don’t dare get near.” -Jonathan Galassi.

One might imagine that the author of these lines is a timid garret dweller, the sort of man who would shrivel up if forced to live amid the shouts and bustle of the marketplace. One might imagine he would seek the refuge of the university. Sheltered by ivy, he could contemplate in peace; success, at least the kind of success that New York takes seriously, would not menace him.

But Jonathan Galassi lives in the real world, and if he is as self-effacing as he would like people to believe, he must be truly menaced. Galassi is editor in chief of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. It’s a high-pressure, high-stakes job for a guy who’s earned degrees from Harvard and Cambridge universities, holds a Guggenheim fellowship, was until recently poetry editor of the Paris Review, writes poetry himself and translates verse from Italian. His specialty is Montale.

His other specialty is Scott Turow.

While the rest of the publishing industry has had to swallow not only losses but its pride, Galassi has been presiding over a miraculous resurgence at FSG, one largely fueled by the runway success of Turow’s two novels- Presumed Innocent and the current best-seller The Burden of Proof. In a time of rapid conglomarization and financial recklessness, FSG remains small, independent and committed to quality. The code at FSG for making a lot of money is publishing a book “well,” as if talking dollars and cents were gauche. Long known for its list of Nobel- and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, the house has recently enjoyed enormous financial success from selling 750,000 hardcover copies of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities and 720,000 copies of Presumed Innocent-their “nouveau riche money,” as FSG’s founder Roger Straus calls it.

Sitting behind a desk in his office, four floors above Union Square, obscured by mountains of books and manuscripts, the 41-year-old Galassi fiddles nervously with a paper clip. He has thick, black hair and a slightly awkward, boyish posture; his horn-rimmed glasses make him look like a nerdy Romeo. Galassi is talking about the uneasy marriage of capitalism and literature, culture and money. Like many in his generation, he has rather ingeniously devised a way to turn his passions into profits: “I do think publishing houses are cultural institutions, but publishing is also a game with the excitement of gambling,” Galassi says. “If you didn’t care about profit, it would be like working for a foundation. The sex would go out of it, and yo wouldn’t have the thrill or sense of accomplishment of standing on your own two feet.”

Under its namesakes- Roger Straus and Robert Giroux-FSG had carved a niche as one of the finest quality publishers. But both men were approaching retirement, and many wondered who there possessed the artistic vision and financial smarts to lead the house into the next ‘century. Before Galassi, FSG had been troubled by a line of editors whose literary taste far outstripped their managerial acumen. Some of his predecessors were notorious for delaying books; and although the works may have always been marked by high literary quality, their sales made for some financially lean years.

Galassi has changed all that. “Jonathan is super because he is as good with literary authors as with class-mass,” explains Straus, FSG’s patrician president, as he leans back in a chair in his corner office overlooking Union Square Park. Although Straus looks every bit the jet-setting international publisher-a silk paisley ascot adorns his neck-he swears with calculated vulgarity. “Any fucking fool can mess around with mass, and any idiot can screw around with class, but if you can get a book that’s both class and mass, then you’re really cooking.”

Like Knopf, which for years funded its publishing program with Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, FSG has maintained the aura of a highly literary house while often paying the bills with less glamorous projects such as Gaylord Hauser’s Look Younger; Live Longer, the best-selling book of the 1950s, and Sammy Davis Jr.’s classic, Yes, I Can. FSG picks up $8 million a year distributing other houses’ books; it’s excellent juvenile line brings in another $5 million.

The numbers, modest by some standards, are at least consistently and stylishly black. “FSG is doing well because we haven’t been able to play the money game. The key to our success is that we are small and have to pay attention to every book we publish. Being poor is good for us because we have to place realistic bets; since we are not a conglomerate, we can’t have loss leaders on our lists,” Galassi says.

When Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell began buying up publishing houses, it wasn’t for the love of books; it was simply empire building. Once you purchased a book, you could publish it in hardcover and paperback, serialize it in magazines and newspapers here and abroad, control the movie and television rights, and retain the entire profit. The theory worked if the book were one of 25 blockbusters a year with such potential, but for the other 60,000 the apparatus proved unwieldy.

“The game being played now is a very perilous high-wire act, and I would be surprised if anyone can stay in the air very long,” says Roger Straus III, FSG’s managing director and the son of its founder. Straus, like Galassi, passed through a number of houses before coming to FSG and brings with him knowledge of the pitfalls of conglomerate publishing. “When a lot of the conglomerates bought houses in the seventies and eighties, there was a feeling that when the 20th-century business practices of large, successful companies were applied to publishing, it too could become a big business,” he explains. Straus recounts meetings with consultants that publishers brought in. “Your problem, schmuck, is very simple,” they would tell him. ” ‘You publish 200 books a year-160 of them are problems and 40 of them are terrific. Don’t publish the 160 dogs, just publish the 40 that make money.’ And you sit there looking at this expensive hired gun, nodding and muttering under your breath, ‘How the fuck do I figure out which those 40 are?’ ”

FSG’s books usually earn out, they claim. Sometimes they just take a while. Robert Giroux, editor emeritus and the man responsible for FSG’ s original literary bent, understands this well. “Most businesses have a product, say soup or salad dressing, and you concentrate on that,” he says. “But in publishing, if you put out 100 books a year”- he smiles-“that is a different product every three days. What kind of business would do that?”

“BULLSHIT! BULLSHIT!” screeches Andrew Wylie, former literato, translator of Ungaretti, college classmate of Jonathan Galassi, now superagent and the scourge of frugal publishers. He is screeching at the mere suggestion that an author’s advance should reflect what the publisher expects a book will earn. Wylie has fashioned a career on the assumption that publishing is indeed a business, not a cause; it’s just that most publishers are lousy businessmen. His theory seems to be that books make money because of a publisher’s commitment and that the best way to ensure that commitment is to extract a huge advance from them. Wylie’s apostasy has made him the most controversial man in publishing. He is Galassi’s other.

Wylie is wearing a gangsterish wide-striped suit. Nostrils flaring, he leans over his desk to refute the idea that a publisher’s commitment might not have an exact dollar equivalent. “There is absolutely no credibility to that statement, none, zero, minus ten,” he adds for emphasis. “They only care as far as they pay . If they really care they’ll pay; if they don’t they won’t. They don’t really love a book and pay nothing for it! It’s a terrible disappointment to me,” he says, settling back in his chair to compose himself. “I wish I could get publishers to pay so much money that they didn’t earn out.”

Wylie has made a career of exploiting the fault lines of publishing’s identity crisis. So it’s fitting that when Philip Roth decided to leave FSG last year, it was Wylie who pushed him. Roth had published 11 books with the house (the last, the novel The Counterlife , was a best-seller), but Wylie demanded $2 million for three books, a sum far greater than FSG usually payed for the author. Many speculated that Roth was jealous of Tom Wolfe’s $7 million deal. (Basking in the glow of Wolfe’s best-selling The Bonfire of the Vanities , FSG paid him a reported $7 million for his next, as of then unwritten, novel.) Some felt FSG’s frugal dealings with Roth were an indictment of its small potatoes philosophy, while others were relieved somebody was finally standing up to Wylie. It takes two to dance, and FSG passed. Simon & Schuster recently published Roth’s Deception to mixed reviews, complete with an R-rated cover and a lurid puff ‘n pant advertisement (“Philip Roth has written a brilliant new novel about what men and women do in bed. Lie. “). Few in the industry believe the book will earn out.

Galassi won’t comment on the affair; he leaves that to Roger III. “Philip is someone for whom the whole symbol of the penis has been important throughout his career,” Straus diagnoses. “And the advance creates a penis-envy’ situation. If an author gets $200,000 more for his book than you have, the size of his member has grown, leaving you in sort of a shriveled position.”

Wylie leaves the psychologizing to Roth’s ex-publishers. His job is to make sure Roth has money in the bank. “Jonathan and I have different jobs, but the same sorts of attitudes. It is not my job to get along with publishers. I’m not going to bed with them, at least not without full combat gear,” Wylie lectures. “If editors are jumping from house to house and publishers are being bought, sold and dissolved, how can you tell a writer, ‘Take this $35,000 advance and live on it for two years while you write your masterpiece, and be bloody glad that your publisher speaks French!’?”

“FSG’s publishing program is a living contradiction of Andrew’s theory,” Galassi, who happens to speak French, responds. “Every day we lavish attention on books we haven’t paid a fortune for. In the end it is the public, not the publisher, who pays the writer. Writers do need money, but they also need to be understood.” While any conglomerate could write a larger check, Galassi knows that there are few houses where writers will be pampered, coddled and even edited. Even more incredible than the fact that Galassi really believes this is that it earns FSG money.
It’s hard to say whether Galassi is a yuppie with the soul of a poet or vice versa. He masks his ambition with bow ties and horn-rimmed glasses, the unmis- takable look of an aesthete. It was a trick he learned at Harvard, where he studied with Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell and hung out with a select crowd of self-conscious intellectuals. Like Galassi, they too would win influential spots in the culture industry.

New York Times theater critic Frank Rich was editorial chairman of the Crimson , writer-editor James Atlas ran the Advocate , and Andrew Wylie drifted around campus sporting a Poundian goatee and beret, translating the Italian poet Ungaretti. Harvard, with its high seriousness and encouragement of eccentricity, provided a kind of laboratory for the idiosyncrasies that would shape the literary-industrial complex of the next decades.

“People believed the world was changing in some radical way, and all our encounters with ideas took place against the background of revolution,” remembers Galassi’s roommate Marty Kaplan, a former speechwriter to Walter Mondale and now a writer-producer at Disney. “Poetry had a kind of actuality then, a relationship to politics and the world that it just doesn’t have today,” Galassi adds.

“Although academically Harvard was of course very good, it was in the extracurricular things that you distinguished yourself. They were professions of sorts,” explains Viking editor Amanda Vaill. “At parties you’d ask people ‘What do you do? ‘ not ‘What do you study?’ and they would answer Advocate , Gilbert & Sullivan or Crimson . It was like having a job, except if you ran over budget, the Harvard trustees would pick up the tab. It was good training for what we do now.”

While president of the Advocate , the literary magazine that counts T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens among its past contributors, Galassi developed his easy style. “Jonathan had to work his way through a tribal minefield of literary allegiances, something he did with great diplomacy and grace,” remembers Kaplan. It was also where Galassi developed his love of discovering new talent, for digging through piles of garbage to find a diamond in the rough. “They were always looking for someone new and exciting who had written a poem VI; story,” recalls Vaill. “It was Harvard, and we liked to discover new stars.”

After graduating magna cum laude, Galassi went to Cambridge on a Marshall scholarship to explore further the groves of academe. While discovering that they were not for him, Galassi began to explore his own roots.

“My grandfather was Italian, and the first time I set foot in Italy was a thrilling part of my heritage that I didn’t know about. Back at Cambridge I started reading Dante. It was an Ur-experience that resonated throughout me; there was suddenly a context for everything wonderful. For someone not from an old culture, this sense of continuity, the layering of various historical periods, is intoxicating.” During summers Galassi studied Italian in Perugia and discovered his passion for translating Montale.
This was a period of self-imposed exile for the Harvard literary mafia, a time spent in Europe discovering the culture they had spent years reading about. “We felt parallel to other such moments, like Paris in the 1920s,” says Kaplan. Galassi and Atlas had a ten- minute sonnet-writing contest in a London pub, which Galassi won by writing: “Atlas held up the world with his thin hands. Why should we suffer while he voids his glands?” Galassi left Cambridge after receiving “a first” (rare for an American), composing one of his exams in rhyming heroic couplets.

In 1973 Galassi returned to Boston and found a job at Houghton Mifflin as editor of its poetry series. The era when publishing was “a gentleman’s profession” had not quite drawn to a close. But the ruptures were beginning. The rivalry there wasn’t exactly between art and commerce, but between the New York and Boston offices. The New Yorkers thought the Boston people were fusty and conservative; they saw themselves as Young Turks. Galassi soon threw his lot in with them and moved to New York.

Amanda Vaill had lunch with Galassi the day he resigned in 1981 from Houghton Mifflin to go to Random House. “When Jonathan told them, they got so mad they ripped up his American Express card; it was like having epaulettes torn from your uniform. He asked whether I could pay.”

Galassi had been wooed by Jason Epstein, the industry’s most intellectual editor, at Random House, its most prestigious house. “I had the young person’s feeling that life would be sexier over there. I thought that because Random’ House was the leading publisher in so many fields, it would be easier to publish my books.”

This, he soon discovered, was not the case. While it would seem that a small literary novel would get better promotion from a powerful house, it often doesn’t happen. Although each imprint is autonomous, all the books are marketed together with blockbusters that sell in greater volume. Small books get lost at these houses, and if you are an editor whose interests lie in books of this kind, you get lost too.

By 1984 Galassi was becoming one of New York’s most respected young editors. That year he won the PEN / Roger Klein Award, publishing’s version of the Oscar. But at Random House he had trouble finding support and enthusiasm for his books. “Some people at Random House, like Howard Kaminsky, assumed that if you went to Harvard, wrote poetry and translated Montale, you didn’t have any moxie,” says Amanda Vaill. According to a source, Kaminsky made his position at the house clear when he called Galassi “a 6,000-copy editor”-6,000 being a book’s smallest feasible print quantity.

At around the same time that Galassi was being edged out of Random House, a spot opened up at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. It seemed a match made in heaven: Galassi not only was highbrow enough for FSG but, having worked at Random House, also knew how to sniff out a blockbuster.

Galassi’s first acquisition for FSG was Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, which rode the best-seller list for 44 weeks. And although FSG didn’t bid the most money for the book (Turow was offered $75,000 more elsewhere), the author went with Galassi because he knew it would get more attention. While Random House had fired an editor mocked for his effete literary taste, FSG had gained an editor suddenly praised for his commercial eye. “Coming to FSG was like coming home for me,” says Galassi.

It is lunchtime at Siracusa, a small Italian restaurant favored by downtown publishers. The entrance is lined with rows of fine salami stacked in a huge case and with shelves full of tomato paste, pasta and seasonings. White tiles cover the floor under sturdy wooden tables, and the smell of garlic and antipasto draws one in. Galassi confides that this restaurant reminds him of his Italian days and dwells over the nuances of southern Italian cuisine. Pausing between courses to sip from his wine, Galassi recalls the attitude toward business he learned as a young editor. “There was a tremendous sense of personality at Houghton, a great respect for writing and discovering new writers, and a very sophisticated sense of the boundary between culture and commerce,” Galassi explains. “A publishing house is not just a business; it is also a cultural institution, a funny meeting place of commerce and culture where you can’t have the culture if the commerce isn’t working. But the culture can feed the commerce.”

“Publishing is a completely speculative profession. It is not even really a business, because it relies primarily on taste, choice and judgment,” expands Robert Giroux, who was responsible for bringing FSG its most famous literary authors in the 1950s. An amiable red-faced man with a cherubic grin and professorial demeanor, Giroux has a view wizened although not jaded after decades in publishing. “Not long ago a millionaire who wanted to get into publishing asked for my advice,” he recounts, looking wistfully out at Union Square. “I told him it simply isn’t a business. It’s like horse racing. You make your choices, pick what you think will be the winner, and often it just won’t come in.”
By placing their bets with Jonathan Galassi, the old guard at FSG isn’t trying to do what they accuse larger houses of: eliminating the risk and eccentricity. But they are also hoping that Galassi will keep finding the likes of Scott Turow. “The only houses which can survive are those that are profitable,” Galassi says. “A company demands a certain level of profitability, but the numbers still have to be black. We have a bottom line, but it all depends on how you get there.

“A wonderful thing about a little house like this is that we make our own rules, and all we have to do is keep going. That is our rule, and how we do it is up to us. The rules of a commodity business don’t apply to us. We are a boutique where books are dealt with one by one, with new ones all the time. Nobody is expecting to get rich on it.”

back to top